The former college suite-mates do battle again, both needing strong performances to wash out less-than-stellar outings the previous week. Palmer has looked questionable for most of the season, and epitomizes the problems Cincinnati has had in its AFC North title defense. It appears he's throwing well into blitzes, but when his primary read isn't open, he isn't checking down efficiently, which seems to be where his opponents' sacks are coming from.
That's an advantageous situation for Polamalu, who has looked uncharacteristically human the last two games. If he's dropping into coverage, and Palmer isn't immediately releasing the ball, the odds of him forcing the throw or holding onto it too long go way up. That's good news for a pass defense that has seen its last four opposing quarterbacks play well against them. Saints QB Drew Brees was able to keep plays away from Polamalu, but get him caught out of position a few times. If Palmer displays the same patience and awareness, it could be another solid passing game against Pittsburgh.
Smith returned to the Bengals' starting lineup in Week 7, and in the two starts he's had since then, he's looked miserable. He's gone against two tough pass rushing teams in Atlanta and Miami, but in those games (both losses), he's given up multiple quarterback pressures, and is equally ineffective in run blocking.
The Steelers have been dropping LOLB James Harrison back in coverage frequently this season, leaving more pass rushing responsibility to Woodley. He's responded well, creating several pressures despite a hamstring injury against Miami in Week 7. Woodley can wreck Cincinnati's likely game plan of rhythm passing to the flats – like they did in two wins against Pittsburgh last season.
Pittsburgh couldn't get Wallace involved in the deep passing game against New Orleans, and the result was the least effective offensive performance they've had since the return of QB Ben Roethlisberger. Wallace leads the league with a 23.4 yards-per-catch average, and Cincinnati's banged-up secondary is going to be put to the test. Either corner will likely have over-the-top help on Wallace, but if Roethlisberger sees the backs of either of their jerseys, he's likely to go for the big play.
Hall is one of the league's best, and teams aren't having a great deal of success throwing his way this season, but a lack of pass rush (six sacks in seven games) is forcing Hall and the rest of the secondary to remain in coverage for extended periods of time. Joseph has missed the last two games with an ankle injury, and no doubt his mobility will be tested.
Maualuga, Cincinnati's strongside linebacker, was exploited by Roethlisberger and RB Willie Parker for a 27-yard touchdown pass the last time these teams played in Cincinnati. That play doesn't exemplify Maualuga's body of work in his career, but he's not the best pass defending linebacker in the league. With Roethlisberger's mobility, and the Bengals' lack of productivity in bringing quarterbacks down this season, getting Roethlisberger out of the pocket and forcing Maualuga to commit to coverage or rushing the passer could lead to big plays.
Moore had 48 huge yards against Miami in Week 7, spelling Mendenhall late in the game. Mendenhall hasn't been a huge factor in the passing game, but has the ability to catch and run, and could be called on a few screen passes against the Bengals. Most likely, though, the Steelers will try to exploit a match-up of either of their pass-catching running backs against Maualuga, or LB Keith Rivers.